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Utah Prepares for Possible Hospital Overflow

Photo of cribs and chairs in a large room
Division of Emergency Management
With its major events canceled at least through the next month, the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy is serving a new purpose: a makeshift hospital for patients needing routine care.

State officials unveiled one of Utah’s major contingency plans Monday in the fight against COVID-19 — 260 makeshift hospital beds that could be used if state hospitals are overrun. 

The beds are set up at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy — where major events and conferences have been canceled through May 15 — and would initially be used to treat non-coronavirus cases.

The Division of Emergency Management said hospitals are managing space well right now, so the additional beds aren’t needed yet. But because so much about the virus is unknown, emergency plans like this are essential. 

“What we hope is that this becomes a really big exercise,” said Joe Dougherty, a spokesman with the Division of Emergency Management. “We hope that we never have a single patient come to a facility like this, but Utah is ready to accept them if the need arises.” 

The impromptu hospital is really just a giant warehouse filled with a few baby cribs and many more beds. The beds are simply cots with thin mattresses and come with a blanket and a pillow, set up in roughly 10 by 10 squares to keep distance between patients. There is also a small pharmacy on-site. 

Dougherty said the plan for now would be to treat low acuity patients, or those who need routine hospital care, at the facility. It could, however, be converted to only treat patients with COVID-19.

The expo center is currently the only overflow facility the state has contracted with, but others may be considered in the future, Dougherty said. And if needed, other areas of the facility could be used to hold up to 1,000 beds total. 

Photo of a cot with a pillow on it in a large roomAn impromptu hospital at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy is equipped with cots with thin mattresses, a blanket and a pillow.
Credit Jon Reed / KUER

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Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association, said all member hospital systems in the state have been preparing for a surge in COVID-19 patients. Despite the financial loss, they’ve suspended elective procedures in accordance with a statewide mandate meant to free up hospital resources. At the University of Utah, for instance, mental health patients have been transferred out of the hospital and into the Neuropsychiatric Institute, Bell said. 

“Through early release [of patients] and deferring procedures, our hospitals have freed up hundreds of beds,” he said. 

In a press conference Friday, state leaders said Utah has enough beds to handle the projected peak in COVID-19 cases — expected to hit April 25. The state has some 600 intensive care unit beds and 1,000 ventilators, though many are being used to treat patients with other illnesses. 

Bell said the major challenges the state still faces are providing adequate testing and creating plans for treating patients in rural areas, where most hospitals don't have ventilators nor the personnel to treat serious cases.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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